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By Taylor Keating
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2010 Taylor Keating
All rights reserved.
If not for the sword held high above her head or her ability to wield it like a Samurai warrior when the situation required, River Weston knew she could kiss her ass good-bye.
But it wasn't just her ass she was worrying about. Without the necessary skills to fight off the packs of wild dogs hiding in the shadows — beasts fondly known by the team as the Hellhounds — they'd peel her skin from her body and indulge in a late-night snack.
Of course she couldn't forget about the demons hot on her trail either, or how delighted they'd be to separate her head from her body and wear it as a trophy.
Either way she'd lose her soul, and dammit, she wasn't about to let that happen. Again.
River's heart monitor gave a little blip of warning, and she took a few deep breaths to center herself. Then, with stealth and precision, she pressed her back against an abandoned concrete structure and eased forward through the shadows. Although the streets appeared deserted, she knew they were anything but. Between every vacant building and alleyway, creatures modeled after the make-believe monsters of children's bedtime stories watched her — waiting for an opportune moment to attack. These creatures were smart, organized, and lethal, and if River wasn't careful, she'd never make it to the Soul Man's lair in one piece.
Sprays of light from overhead streetlamps fanned the blood-drenched sidewalk. A coppery, pungent stench clogged her nostrils, causing her stomach to churn. River lowered her sword and shifted it to one hand. So much blood, so much carnage, yet no bodies to be seen, although she knew all too well what these depraved monsters did to their victims.
Stifling a shiver she pressed herself deeper into the shadows and crab-walked forward, her eyes continually scanning and cataloguing her surroundings, searching for motion while seeking signs that her comrade, Sever, was nearby.
Beads of sweat trickled between her breasts, but she'd learned long ago to distance herself from the discomfort and concentrate only on the hunt.
Off in the distance a hound barked a warning, followed by a low growl swallowed by the night. The faint smell of smoke drifted in on a howling wind, dusting debris into her eyes. She gave a quick blink, not daring to take her trained gaze off the shifting shadows.
Her damp skin barely registered the increasing chill of the night. She drew another slow, steadying breath and noted the heavy clouds knitting together overhead, accompanied by a faint rumble of thunder. The rain would soon be here.
A bright firefly whipped past her head. With lightning speed River reached out, grabbed it with her free hand, and dropped it into the rucksack dangling from her shoulder. Even though a firefly brought only minimal amounts of energy, every bit of strength would be needed in her final battle against the Soul Man.
Making herself one with her surroundings, she moved with a practiced agility. But despite her best efforts, she feared that each tread of her military-issue combat boots on the dangerously tranquil street might give away her coordinates.
River was partial to solitude. At any other time, on any other night, she would have longed for such peace and quiet. But this solitude was different. It was menacing, dark, dangerous. Her gaze skated over the rooftops. Hellhounds were out there watching, waiting. She felt them, sensed them, and tasted them with every fiber of her being.
God, what a rush.
She glanced at the silent com-link on her wrist and orchestrated her next move. If she could make it to the movie theater — the safe house — on the other side of the street, she could rest and gather strength while she signaled Sever. She couldn't move on to the Soul Man's lair without him.
Suddenly, her skin prickled in warning the way it always did when demons pinpointed her location. If she didn't get to the safe house as soon as possible, the hunter was about to become the hunted.
Gunfire rang out behind her and she picked up her pace, putting more distance between herself and the approaching demons until she could better position herself for an all-out attack.
A low growl cut through the silence and a movement in the shadows caught her eyes.
She bolted, darting across the cracked and pitted street at an inhuman speed.
Before she could make it to the safe house a pack of Hellhounds rushed at her, a frothy mixture of saliva and fresh blood dripping from their fangs.
Both hands tightened around the hilt of her sword, and using slow movements intended to distract and intimidate, River twisted, counting the Hellhounds circling her. Even she was impressed by their numbers, and felt a small twinge of pride that she warranted so many.
There was little time for self-congratulations. Violence erupted around her as one hound raced forward, hitting her with such force it would have driven a lesser woman to her knees. Dark lips peeled back to reveal razor-sharp fangs and River's thigh ached in response. She wasn't oblivious to the damage those fangs could inflict.
Survival instincts kicking in, River cut her sword through the air, driving the blade deep into the belly of the beast. A pained expression ripped across its muzzle as it collapsed onto the ground. Its sharp yelp, combined with the spray of fresh blood, fueled the other hounds into action.
One beast latched onto River's thigh, zeroing in on her weakness, its fangs slicing through her flesh like a hot knife through butter. Wincing, her sword slipped from her hand and she dropped like a snared gazelle. Her heart monitor blared and the com-link on her wrist flashed a red light of warning.
Trying to see through the blinding pain, River groped for her sword. The second her hand connected with it a round of shots scattered through the air. The rapid-fire rain of bullets took down a few Hellhounds while the others scurried back to the shadows. River knew the bullets would only temporarily stun the hounds and wouldn't keep them down for long. The only way to kill one of those fuckers was with the cold blade of a sword.
River glanced up to see Sever approaching. Intense gray eyes locked on hers.
She ripped the torn sleeve from her camo jacket and tied it around her bloodied thigh. Her heart monitor fell silent and the red light on her com-link blinked out.
"About time you showed," she said.
He leaned against the ridiculously oversized Uzi Nick had insisted on designing for him. "Been busy."
River grinned, happy to see him. "That's a smart mouth you've got there." She made a mental note to adjust his attitude when this was all over.
Her gaze panned over him, taking pleasure in a well-muscled man in face paint and battle fatigues. Sever was the picture of perfection. The ideal man, straight out of her fantasies — or rather, her imagination.
"You hurt?" she asked.
His answering grin was a mixture of sweet honey and determined grit. He shouldered his gun. Weapon or no weapon, this man was a trained warrior. A hunter. A predator. And was never to be underestimated.
"I've been better."
Sever held his hand out to her. As she reached for it, a spray of bullets ricocheted off the towering buildings above their heads. Grenade fire followed. A horrendous explosion erupted inside an old warehouse. What she could only assume was C-4 tore one building from its roots.
It seemed the demons had found them.
Sever grabbed her hand, maneuvering his body to protect hers, and hauled her to her feet. "Let's go."
Protecting her back was Sever's job, although River was of two minds about that. Strategy, however, was all hers.
The Wizard or the Soul Man's lair?
Thunder crackled in the air overhead, accompanying the first flashes of lightning. A few fat drops of rain splattered her cheeks and bare arm.
She had to get to the safe house first. Then she needed a few more moments to think.
The safe house was only two doors down in the abandoned movie theater sporting boarded windows and a crazy, tilted neon sign that flashed an ad for Spaceballs. Under cover of Sever's return fire they made it inside without further injury to themselves, although River thought she heard three demons fall behind them.
Three wouldn't be enough.
River jammed the blade of her sword into a panel on the side of the building and the door to the safe house swung open. They darted inside, the door hissed shut behind them, and silence fell.
She spun in a circle, examining the room carefully in the unnatural, filtered light. She knew the room by heart, although its contents were never quite the same. What she'd find inside depended on what she'd collected in the outside world.
A few scraggly weeds crept through the cracks in the stone foundation of the safe house and twisted up the walls. Disappointment dampened her initial thrill at making it to the house alive. There weren't enough plants to give her the power she'd need to successfully complete the mission. She tapped the weeds with the dull edge of her sword, drawing as much power from them as she could, as she tried to make up her mind what to do next. Her sword's blade strengthened, but only slightly.
"Hurry it up." Nick's impatient, tinny voice blared through her com-link. "You're over by about five minutes and I want you out of there."
Sever stood by impassively, his weapon slung over his shoulder and his arms folded across his broad chest, waiting for her to make up her mind.
Door number one summoned the Wizard. Door number two led straight to the Soul Man's lair.
River glanced at her com-link, considered the amount of time Nick would likely allow her, and decided what the hell, she might as well live life on the edge. She hitched her rucksack higher on her shoulder.
Door number two it was. "Come on."
Sever followed close on her heels as she stepped through the door.
The Soul Man's lair never failed to astonish her. It resembled a long medieval hall, its low ceiling supported by a tunnel of carefully pillared archways crafted from chiseled stone and crumbling mortar. Deep, smoke-blackened fireplaces, large enough for several big men to stand within, lined the walls to the left and the right.
Their footsteps echoed eerily against the polished granite floor as they moved forward into an unnatural stillness. The damp coolness inside the lair wrapped around her and chilled her bones. River fought to steady her breathing and keep her heart rate down to an acceptable level.
Sever, of course, looked as if he was out for nothing more than a casual stroll. Most of the time she enjoyed his calm steadiness. At other times, like now, it annoyed the hell out of her. She tossed her rucksack into one of the empty fireplaces out of harm's way, but close enough for her to retrieve if necessary. Its contents were sparse, but every little thing she'd collected had a purpose, however minor.
A low whine rent the air and she ducked as the first fireball shot past her left ear. It caught Sever on the shoulder, but he shrugged it off.
River lifted her sword, its slightly curved steel blade glinting blue in the flashes of light from the unleashed fireballs, and deflected the next three.
The Soul Man stepped from behind a pillar, robes billowing around his long legs as he hefted more fireballs in thin, bony white hands, letting River know he was toying with her. A cowl covered his head and hid his face.
River's heart monitor let out a sharp beep.
"Careful, River," Nick warned on the other end of her com-link.
That wasn't good. When Nick started fussing about vitals, it meant he was serious. He was going to pull her out.
"Relax," River said, reluctantly making a decision that might buy her more time. Disappointment curdled the pit of her stomach. "I'm going to let Sever handle this one. I'm just going to observe."
As the Soul Man lifted his hands to release his next round, Sever stepped in front of River. He grunted as a fireball glanced off his chest, a direct hit.
Each time one of those fireballs hit him, it was going to do him more and more harm, and River knew Sever wasn't going to make it. She had to put the little time he bought her to good use.
She pulled her gaze away from Sever and the Soul Man, needing to find out more about his lair and the dark, deadly secrets it held.
A slight smell of sulfur and hot plastic stung her nostrils, and the faint ring of thunder through the thick stone walls told her the storm outside must be almost directly overhead.
Without warning, a lightning bolt shot from one of the fireplace chimneys and scorched the floor at her feet, knocking her flat on her ass. She skidded a few feet across the stones, the aftershocks of electricity lifting her hair. She fell backward, hitting her head on the floor, stunning her for a few seconds.
"What the hell?" she heard Nick yell.
Sever, too, was caught off guard. He half turned to see what was happening, and as he did, a well-aimed fireball nailed him square in the back of the head. He dropped to his knees and pitched forward, collapsing like a marionette.
The Soul Man never faltered.
River, trying desperately to gather her wits, reached for the sword that lay on the floor a few inches beyond her scrabbling fingers.
"You're mine, River Weston," the Soul Man said, his voice crackling like brittle bones. Full-blown panic clawed at River's frozen chest. Her heart monitor screeched and she heard Nick swearing a blue streak in response.
This wasn't how it was supposed to be.
Her fingers wrapped around the hilt of her sword and she swung it upward, aiming at the Soul Man's knees. The blade swept through him and he laughed, a terrible, soul-chilling sound that sent a rush of adrenaline to her brain.
River dropped the sword and grabbed for her helmet.CHAPTER 2
Heart still racing, River dropped her gaming helmet beside the length of wood she used as a makeshift sword.
"Son of a bitch," she bit out in disappointment as Nick stepped onto the circular gaming platform and went to work on removing her monitors.
"Christ, River. Are you trying to get yourself killed?"
"Killed?" River ripped the last monitor from her chest and glanced over at the program still running on Nick's monitor. Error//K:61253.10 end_function flashed in bright neon lights. "How can I get myself killed when you're hovering over me like a little old lady?"
Nick's blue eyes narrowed. "Bungee jumping with an extralong cord is safer than what you just did. If I don't take care of you, who will?"
She'd actually scared him, she saw. She grinned, trying to lighten his mood. "Sever?"
He didn't smile back. "Sever? Sometimes I wonder if you really designed him for his abilities. Maybe if you spent less time watching his ass and more time covering your own you'd be able to defeat the Soul Man."
She stepped from the rubber gaming platform, plunked herself into Nick's chair, and took a slug of his Red Bull.
"Something just isn't right. I need more time inside the game to figure it out," she said.
"You're an adrenaline junkie, River. That's what isn't right."
She couldn't deny it. Regardless, that didn't change the fact that she needed more time to figure out why she couldn't take down the Soul Man and win the game. She'd written the code, for Christ's sake. All she had to do was weaken the Soul Man with lightning and then take him down with her sword, yet every time she reached his lair her program seemed to take on a life of its own.
"All I need is five more minutes."
She took in Nick's watchful expression and noted the exhausted lines on his face.
"You can't have them. Your vitals were off the chart. Any more time inside that game, and you and I both know what could happen." He drove his hands deep into his pockets. "I have no desire to stand in front of a judge and explain why you went into cardiac arrest when I was supposed to be monitoring you. At the very least we're talking criminal negligence causing bodily harm."
She rolled her eyes and took another slug of his Red Bull, even though she was already far too wired. She punched a few keys and rebooted her program. "Get real. The legal system isn't that efficient. It would take a team of investigators years to figure out what happened, and that's only assuming they'd care. You're safe. Let's go over the subroutine code again."
Nick reached past her shoulder, plucked the near-empty can of Red Bull from her hand, and spun her around to face him. He slanted his head, his dark, disheveled hair falling forward. "Better yet, let's call it a night. The rest of the team is waiting for us at Andy's Pub and you look like you could use a good stiff drink to bring you down. I know I could."
With rumors running rampant that competitors were close to creating and marketing a similar interactive kick-ass adventure game geared toward the rich and bored, and upper management making noises about taking away funding for what was becoming an alarmingly overbudget project, River was far from ready to quit for the night. Not when she was so close to figuring out that final code.
This was her brainchild. Her baby. She'd poured her heart and soul into it and she'd do anything to see it succeed. The rich and bored might be the only ones able to afford it at first, but she had high hopes that it would someday offer a semblance of normality to people who'd lost all use of their physical bodies.
Excerpted from Game Over by Taylor Keating. Copyright © 2010 Taylor Keating. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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